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The Best French Movies of the 21st Century, from ‘Amélie’ to ‘Cache’

The best French films of the 21st century remind us why France is still as important to cinema as light itself.

The 35 Best French Films of the 21st Century

The 35 Best French Films of the 21st Century

15. “Goodbye First Love” (2011)

“Goodbye First Love”

A movingly detached inquiry into lost time, Mia Hansen-Løve’s exquisite second feature has the sweep and sensitivity of a coming-of-age story, but to lump it in with the rest of that genre seems wrong. For one thing, “Goodbye First Love” feels fully mature from the start, even if its young heroine (the wonderfully grounded Lola Créton) still has plenty of growing up to do. For another, Hansen-Løve isn’t the least bit interested in rehashing any familiar tropes. She traces her protagonist’s adventure with such directness that it feels like we’re living it first-hand, the girl’s maturation adhering to no recognizable plot structure beyond the erratic — and ineffably natural — trajectory of falling in love and getting back on your feet. Starting with a blast of unbridled zeal and ending with a note-perfect needle drop, “Goodbye First Love” is an unforgettable glimpse at volcanic passion, the pain of watching it cool, and the beauty of feeling it harden into the people we become. —DE

14. “A Christmas Tale” (2008)

“A Christmas Tale”

Arnaud Desplechin’s movies are often understated dramas about characters struggling with neuroses, troubled memories and thorny family problems. “A Christmas Tale” is the finest example of this ongoing fixation, a far-reaching drama that seamlessly shifts between a series of mini-stories throughout a messy family dynamic even as it maintains a constant focus. Catherine Deneuve plays the confident matriarch who lords over a network of children, grandchildren and in-laws, many of whom flit in and out of the plot as if circulating through their own mini-movies in Desplechin’s freewheeling cinematic collage. The movie is ultimately less about how this particular family copes with a debilitating illness that threatens their future, and more about how much an expansive network of relatives can actually create more distance within the overall unit. It’s a startling immersion into a sophisticated world that Desplechin juggles with ease; there’s so much going on, and yet there’s a clarity to the chaos that resonates on a universal level. —EK

13. “My Golden Days” (2015)

“My Golden Days”

At once a sequel and a prequel to writer-director Arnaud Desplechin’s acclaimed 1996 film “My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument,” the bittersweet drama “My Golden Days” re-teams Desplechin with his frequent star Mathieu Amalric, once again playing the perpetually indecisive academic Paul Dédalus. In this chapter of the Dédalus saga, the middle-aged man looks back on a few key moments from his youth, reflecting on how fragile and fleeting some of his most intense relationships were. Like most of Desplechin’s novelistic movies, “My Golden Days” is packed with memorable moments that can seem at first disconnected and even arbitrary. But he brings everything together by the end into something at once truthful and haunting, exploring how fond memories and deep regrets intermingle. —NM

12. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

The movie that Julian Schnabel was born to make, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is the rare adaptation that wrings the full potential out of its new medium. As a deathbed memoir, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life story about his years as the free-wheeling editor of a fashion mag — and his months as a prisoner in his own body, where he was trapped after suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of 45 — is a remarkable work of autobiography (and not only because Bauby dictated the entire thing to a nurse with his eyelids). As a film, his experience is a devastatingly unforgettable but ultimately life-affirming look at the frailty of the human form, and how our smallness provides the perfect lens through which to appreciate the infinity of the world around us. Shot in such a way as to simulate Bauby’s “locked-in” POV and brought to life by Mathieu Amalric’s staggering lead performance, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” has the power to permanently alter your appreciation for where you are and what you’ve got. —DE

11. “Tell No One” (2006)

Tell No One

“Tell No One”

The American mystery-thriller author Harlan Coben is incredibly popular worldwide, and has seen his work adapted for the big and small screen more often in Europe than in the United States. French director Guillaume Canet was the first to make a movie out of a Coben novel with “Tell No One,” the story of a widowed doctor named Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet), who receives a mysterious message that appears to be from his long-dead wife, at the same time that the police begin re-investigating her murder — with Alexandre as the new prime suspect. Canet stages some fantastically gripping action sequences, but for the most part he and Cluzet ground Coben’s twisty, page-turning plot in the humanity of its protagonist: a man who seems to draw tragedy to him, like clouds of insects to rotting fruit. —NM

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